Monday, February 21, 2005

Learning About Life from Hunter S. Thompson (including a short ode to Johnny)

My son is mourning today, as he should. His encounters with Hunter S. Thompson's work are so fresh and raw. I suppose I should take a moment and think back so, so many years to when I learned a few things from the Doctor of Gonzo.

I grew up in Vernonia. What, doesn't ring a bell? Not surprising. It's a micro-town (then population 1,850, give or take) in the foothills of the coast range of Oregon, between Portland and the coast. The main reason for its existence was the forest surrounding it on all sides, ripe for the cutting by generations of loggers. I grew up there because my father was the corporate representative of the company that owned a lot of the surrounding timber, and had the job of managing the planting, growth, harvesting and replanting of the timber "crop."

Vernonia was surrounded by trees. On hills. Miles of trees on miles of hills. It was a wonderful, safe, friendly, small-town-y way to grow up, and of course, as a teen, I resented every minute of it. But through television, books and magazines, I tried to learn about the world beyond the trees and plot my escape.

Maybe I would write a great book, as hip as Studio 54, as funny as Saturday Night Live, and then I would be invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and I would sit on that couch and shoot the breeze with Johnny and the other guests...any less of a life would be too boring, too drab, too average. That's the mind of a teen for you - thinking that what they see on television is the only important thing to possess. But I was right about one thing - man, it would have been cool to sit on Johnny's couch and shoot the breeze.

I went to college at the University of Oregon. Granola U. The University of Birkenstock. Berkeley North. There's where my education really started. And that's where I discovered, among other things, Hunter S. Thompson, and really started to learn about the world - and writing - from one of the masters.

Reading Hunter S. Thompson for me is like riding in a convertible with the top down, when the driver is going way too fast. I can feel my hair being blown back, and the nervous smile start to form, the pupils dilate, the laugh lurking in the throat. Writing that, I couldn't help but picture that car on the highway to (Fear and Loathing in) Las Vegas with no chance, knowing the state of the driver and passenger inside, of ever reaching their destination intact, but knowing full well they will - by the grace of - what? The patron saint of recreational drugs? The god of talented fools with a way with words? We will never know.

But man, for a kid from Vernonia, this was a new way to live. Holding on by the fingernails - to life, to reality even - doing whatever seemed the most outrageous thing at any given moment. Of course, I never (rarely ever) lived that way. Maybe I did take a few chances that I might not have. But the very thought that you can if you want is both freeing and slightly, but pleasingly, frightening for a piglet-y type like myself.

But Hunter S. Thompson was about more than fun with drugs and guns. By writing about his own reactions to the stories he reported (or occasionally made), he was able to burrow underneath the surface of the facts. Whether he was writing about a murderer, a porn star or a president, his ability to weave his way into the story often illuminated facets about people that they would have rather left in shadow.

Mark Twain used to say of his short-lived journalism career, "I never let the facts get in the way of a good story." Although you couldn't necessarily count on Doctor Thompson sticking to the facts, in fact you could rarely believe a word he wrote, by the end of the article, you knew the truth.

And in the end, that's what we're all after, isn't it?

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